I confess I am not a fan of the middle section of most orthodox biographies, when the subject is being busy and productive and the biographer feels obliged to detail every lunch they attended, every trip they took. Laura Thompson’s biography of Agatha Christie sidesteps this tendency neatly, by taking a far more narrative line through her life. Chapters look at different aspects of her existence – motherhood, the reception of her books, her time spent on archaeological digs, as they become relevant along a chronological time line. This I loved, and it gave me a much better sense of Agatha Christie as a person. But it also came with some more dubious strategies, such as taking the novels Christie wrote under her pseudonym of Mary Westmacott as straightforward evidence of what she felt and thought about her early life and first marriage. There is much less quotation from archive materials, which makes for a lighter, freer read, but at the same time you feel that a great deal of information may in fact be speculation. It’s rather hard to tell. I find biography a fascinating genre, but I think it’s devilishly hard to write.
Agatha Christie grew up strong, beautiful, talented and cherished. She was, as she said herself, ‘a lovely girl’. She was the third child of Frederick and Clara Miller, an afterthought, who was not allowed to go to school like her older brother and sister, but stayed home with her loving but possessive mother. When her father died, the bond between Agatha and Clara only grew stronger. But Agatha was a deeply romantic young woman, who fell for the dashing Archie Christie near the start of WW1. Clara did not like him much, but Agatha was determined, and they married one weekend he was on leave, entering into one of those oddly dislocated marriages of passion that wars tend to promote. Archie survived, but Agatha did not quite realise how affected he had been by combat. She loved to travel and wanted to socialise, whilst Archie could only face quiet evenings in at the end of the working day. By this time, Agatha had written a couple of detective stories. She did not think it could possibly amount to a career, although her writing was undoubtedly boosted by an underlying competitiveness with her older sister, who had put on a play in London, seemingly without trying.
Agatha adored Archie Christie, but her romantic idea of relationships gave her no indication of what to do when they went
wrong. Her tendency was to assume everything would just come right. And things may have done, except for the death of Clara Miller in 1926. Agatha had been so close to her mother that her death was an immense blow. She moved back to her beloved family home, Ashfield, ostensibly to clear her mother’s things out, but she was low and suffering and unable to tackle the chore with her usual energy. Meanwhile, Archie hated emotional problems, could not bear to face them, and he embarked on an affair, one so serious that when he came to visit, he asked Agatha for a divorce. Agatha was reeling under the grief of her loss already, and so this news was intolerable. She begged Archie to return to the marriage, and he tried for a while, without success.
It was at this time that Agatha Christie staged her disappearance. To recount it, Laura Thompson moves fully into fictional narrative, imagining her in a fugue state brought on by her misery, only half aware of what she was doing when she abandoned her car on gloomy wasteland near a rather ominous looking pool, with her fur coat and suitcase inside it. She caught a train to London and onto Harrogate, registering under the false name of Teresa Neele (Neele being the name of Archie’s mistress). She had left letters, though, one to her secretary Charlotte Fisher, that was somewhat hysterical, a calmer one to Archie’s brother, saying she was ill and going to a spa to recuperate. Unfortunately, when the police came on the scene, the officer in charge was convinced that the set up of the car by the pond indicated foul play, and although he knew of the letters she had sent, he chose to believe Charlotte’s and to discount the factual one to Archie’s brother. The press scented a juicy story and in no time at all, Agatha Christie was headline news. For over a week she dominated the front pages, the public was mobilised into search parties sweeping across the area where her car was found, and suspicion increasingly fell on Archie (who behaved rather foolishly trying to hide his genuine guilt over the affair).
When Agatha Christie was finally tracked down, the official line was that she was suffering from amnesia. The police were seriously annoyed, having been made to look rather silly, the press was of course outraged and demanding retribution and Agatha Christie’s name was mud. She was vilified as a hysterical attention-seeking woman, after publicity for her books. She was in fact an intensely private person, who would have found having her name in the papers a cause for shame, so this outcome was clearly not at all what she had wanted. The hue and cry did, however, make her famous, and every book she subsequently wrote was a bestseller.
This series of events marks a notable threshold in Agatha Christie’s life. Thompson suggests that she never really got over Archie Christie and the events surrounding the end of her marriage. From this point onwards she wrote compulsively and guarded her privacy fiercely. She married again, a much younger man, the archaeologist Max Mallowan and although considered an odd alliance in most people’s eyes, it seemed to work well for both of them. The rest of her life was really quite calm, unsurprisingly considering how much she wrote; it can’t have left much time over. The only –although that’s not quite the word – battle she had left to fight, was with the rapacious demands of the taxmen in America and the UK. Her agents probably did not do enough to protect her. When she died, she left only £100,000, which is not much money for someone whose sales were only topped by Shakespeare and the Bible. And as ever the end of her life is rather sad; her era had been and gone, she was belittled behind her back by the editors and agents who worked for her, critical attention was against her and she was old, fragile and often querulous.
Laura Thompson asks some pertinent questions about the Agatha Christie legacy. If she is not a good writer, why does she way outsell other Golden Age greats like Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers? Critics have called her books formulaic, disinterested in the emotional realities of death, cosy and artificial, xenophobic and racist. And yet still she sells in millions. She had something, Thompson insists, that we need.